Hearts Too Narrow

By Michael Reid Busk

Posted December 11, 2008 in Arts & Culture

Pop quiz: you’re at a party and a guy in math-rock glasses and pants that might be his girlfriend’s starts talking to you about reiki and why High Life is so much better than MGD, and before long he pulls a well-thumbed literary journal out of his messenger bag. Which journal?  

If you guessed McSweeney’s, you are correct. The San Francisco-based magazine and publisher is for literature what American Apparel is for fashion, Wes Anderson is for film, the Shins are for music. McSweeney’s is the fictionalized soul of the urbane, alternative, and eternally young; always expansive, it seeks to be arch and sincere, sexy and innocent, tough and big-hearted, all at once. Sometimes it succeeds, especially in the stories of its best regulars: George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Zadie Smith, and the McSweeney’s founder himself, the ur-indie Dave Eggers. The question (which could also be posed to American Apparel, Anderson, and the Shins) is this: when does the precocious become precious?

If you prefer David Sedaris to David Lynch, Death Cab to death metal, then Vacation, the new McSweeney’s novel by Deb Olin Unferth, might be for you.  There’s an eco-terrorist who tracks down and rescues abused dolphins, not one but two girls who travel thousands of miles to track down their absentee fathers, a husband who follows his wife through Manhattan as she follows another man for no discernable reason, and a man who chases a college acquaintance all the way to Nicaragua.

If this sounds like a thriller plot, don’t worry—nobody actually finds anyone. Some might take this failure as a poignant metaphor for our inability in contemporary America to connect with other people; I’m more inclined to call it sloppy plotting. In lieu of character development or narrative arc, Unferth substitutes a maddening series of wanderings. The one bit of prolonged interaction is Unferth’s dissection of a failed marriage, but this world is so clinical that the normal stuff of romance’s dissolution—tears, rages, any emotion whatsoever—is sublimated into long conversations about light bulbs and crockery. Of the gray lives of her characters, Unferth writes, “Most people live this way. They really do.” This might be the thesis of the entire novel, but even if Unferth is correct, dull characters make for dull narrative.

Sublimate is an important word here. This is a novel of therapy, of characters who believe it’s crucial to understand themselves and those around them. Because of this, Vacation is often stiflingly psychological: for all its traipsing to far-flung locales—the slushy fringes of the Rust Belt, the sweaty tropics of Central America, the hurly-burly of Manhattan—that’s all Unferth gives us, that Syracuse is cold, Nicaragua hot, and New York crowded. This might be less exasperating if Unferth were not such a fine and idiosyncratic stylist: “The more the man thrashes, the more it seems that gems and bits of silver and pearl are falling around him, as if he were caught inside a heavy opera costume, as if he were crashing through the stained glass of a cathedral, as if he were wrapped in air and light.” There are a few other equally lovely passages, but in general Unferth wastes her talents on drab characters with vaporous desires and incomprehensible motives. Halfway through, the baffling central female character finally explains herself, but the motivations she reveals are so paltry, so adolescent, I would have preferred the frustration of the mystery.

The characters in Vacation want to understand why they are the way they are, but when the novel’s veils are torn away, what’s exposed is a hole, exactly the shape and size of a human heart.

Vacation (McSweeney’s), by Deb Olin Unferth, 215 pages. Hardback $22   


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